The medical cannabis community is seeing the rise of a new form of concentrate consumption: ‘dabbing’ or “doing dabs.” Concentrated extracts, usually produced with butane or CO2, are consumed using ever more elaborate glass apparatus.
The most common methods include a ‘nail’ made from glass or titanium, or a metal skillet. The procedure for dabbing is basically the same. The nail or skillet is heated to red hot with a blowtorch. The extract, usually a solvent wax or oil, is then touched to the red-hot surface. The intense heat almost instantly vaporizes it, whereupon it is inhaled through some form of glass tubing. Dabbing devices range from simple pipes, to incredibly complex arrangements of glass chambers, diffusers and mouthpieces.
Watching the variegated rituals involved leads one to ask, “Why are so many people dabbing?” and, perhaps more importantly, “is dabbing a safe and wellness-oriented method of consumption?”
The last decade has seen an explosion in the type and purity level of concentrated cannabis products. It all started with cold-water hash, then later butane hash oil (BHO) and more recently CO2, oxygen and hydrogen - collectively called super critical extractions. The availability and potency of concentrates has risen exponentially. Five years ago BHO was commonly available but represented a small segment of the market. Consumption of oils and waxes was initially through traditional methods. Oil could be smeared on a rolling paper or dropped onto a pipe of flowers. BHO would usually be smoked on a pipe of flowers. These methods provided a much stronger effect than just smoking flowers, as the THC content could be as high as 70%. People also used charcoal to instantly vaporize, which, it could be easily argued, gave rise to the current dabbing craze.
Where’s the harm, you might be asking? Isn’t it better to consume a small portion of extremely concentrated cannabis, rather than more plant material? Well, yes. Arguably cold-water hash is safer than whole flowers; there are fewer compounds in the smoke that might be potentially harmful. Although if one looks at Dr. Tashkin’s 40-year UCLA study showing the signs of lung impairment from regular cannabis consumption, one has to wonder what all the fuss is about. In this author’s opinion, it is both the nature of solvent concentrates and the frequency of use that present the most troubling questions about the safety of dabbing. Oh, there’s also the burning of yourself, friends and house, with blowtorches and red-hot nails. Last but certainly not least, overindulgence in dabbing does not fit in with a wellness model.
Additionally, 30 years of cannabis consumption leads me to believe cannabis undergoes a transformation when exposed to solvents, especially butane. BHOs must be thoroughly purged of any residual butane or the sulfur used as an odorant. Frequently this does not happen correctly. This is one reason why Harborside is so discerning in what products we carry. Even with the cleanest BHOs, the effect of smoking them is fundamentally different than cold-water hash or flowers. BHO can typically have a “chemically” feeling. The high seems to be mostly in the head and is quite powerful. I don’t understand, if cannabis can be concentrated using cold water, why anyone would want to use solvents?
Perhaps more troubling than the product itself is the method of consumption. Rituals have always been an important part of cannabis culture and you could argue that dabbing is just a logical next step. There is some truth to that. People with extreme medical conditions for whom flowers are not strong enough can indeed benefit from dabbing. My concern lies more with 18-year-olds who are just learning to medicate. Imagine having access to 60-70% THC products and a method for consuming large amounts in a short time. This appears to be a recipe for abuse—following an intoxication not wellness model. The same way a young person will do a beer ‘bong,’ or tequila shots until they puke, they are overindulging in dabbing.
I’ve been concerned about this trend for a while but my recent trip to the High Times Cannabis Cup in L.A. is what prompted this article. I was amazed and more than a little concerned watching hordes of 20-somethings dabbing away. I saw very few sharing joints or pipes. Instead people were clustered around elaborated glass pipes and blowtorches. For those of you who lived through the 1980s, the similarities to ‘freebasing’ were impossible to ignore. More worrisome were the glazed looks of many people’s faces. The folks weren’t medicated, they were ripped. I know I’m sounding old-fashioned but what’s wrong with a joint, bong hit, or pipe? Are we preserving the best face for the medical community to the rest of the world to be so high we can barely function?
How is this wellness?